Mark McGwire, maybe the greatest baseball slugger of this generation, always seemed so ... so darned big. It was the way he bent his knees in the batter's box, a huge man perfectly balanced, drumstick arms flicking a toothpick bat at a gnat of a fastball.
It was the resulting home runs, too, of course. Great, arcing beasts that exploded off that bat, traveling to parts of ballparks previously thought unreachable.
It was his sense of timing. And his sense of history. Tossing a chance at 50 home runs as a rookie in 1987, for instance, in favor of being at the birth of his son. Chasing Roger Maris 11 years later while embracing the late Yankees slugger's family. Pulling the whole nation along for the ride.
And, now, his retirement. Not at the height of his game. Not with his prodigious powers intact. But with his accomplishments still fresh in our minds and a $30 million contract -- thirty million dollars! -- left on the table.
More than any other player in baseball at the turn of this century, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark David McGwire has been a baseball icon. There are others with more talent. Barry Bonds, who eclipsed McGwire's single-season home run record this year by smashing 73 homers, is a better all-around player. Ken Griffey Jr. has a better swing. Many others field their positions better. Most are speedier.
But no one has inspired more unbridled awe. No one has better embodied the characteristics of that rare baseball breed known as a true slugger.
McGwire, 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds of pure intimidation, will be remembered most for 1998. The summer of the Great Home Run Chase. Fans came out by the thousands and thousands just to watch McGwire take batting practice. Fellow players giggled among themselves as batting practice fastballs were battered off second-deck facades, swatted out of ballparks, smoked to deep center.
More than half of his record 70 home runs that year traveled an estimated 420 feet or more. Five went 500 feet or more. He hit one in St. Louis on May 16 that year, off Florida's Livan Hernandez, estimated at about 550 feet.
"He has the power," said Milwaukee pitcher Paul Wagner, who coughed up a 527-foot job, "of three men."
Said Florida manager Jim Leyland: "They look like ping pong balls going out."
McGwire and the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa waged a dinger-for-dinger duel that stopped a nation in its tracks in the summer of '98. If Cal Ripken Jr.'s quest for Lou Gehrig's ironman streak brought people back to baseball in 1995 (after a labor fiasco canceled the 1994 World Series), McGwire and Sosa locked them up that summer.
"I knew I had support," McGwire told Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci shortly after hitting No. 62, "but I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn't realize it affected people the way it did.
"To hear what people inside and outside baseball are saying, that means so much to me. It's unbelievable."
There were rough spots, as there always are with the great ones. A nutritional supplement, androstenedione, was spotted in his locker by a reporter, igniting a controversy over McGwire's use of the testosterone-producing substance.
McGwire, juggling the demands of the chase and his own need for privacy, was seen as brooding and miserable as his assault on Maris' 37-year old record continued.
Still, in '98, he barely wavered.
"It's like he's oblivious to the pressure," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said at the time. "In fact, he thrives even more on it."
McGwire broke Maris' mark on Sept. 8, uncorking No. 62 against the Cubs' Steve Trachsel. Sosa applauded in the outfield, then trotted in to join the first-inning celebration. No. 70 came 19 days later, on McGwire's last at-bat of the season, a first-pitch fastball from Montreal's Carl Pavano that went 370 feet into left field in St. Louis.
"I can't believe I did that," he says.
The numbers were astonishing. The 400-footers, the 500s, the 70.
McGwire, though, wowed throughout his career, starting with his record 49 homers in his rookie year with the Oakland A's. He was one of the Bash Brothers in Oakland (with Jose Canseco). He smashed 58 homers in 1997 (when he was traded to the Cardinals in a mid-season deal). After his 70 in '98, he hit 65 the following year.
He ends his run with 583 homers, fifth on the all-time list behind Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson. He ends it with six trips to the postseason and one World Series title (with Oakland in 1989).
He ends it -- though a $30 million contract extension was there for the signing -- because of a bum knee that ruined his final two seasons. He played fewer than 100 games in each of his last two years and hit just .187 in 2001.
To many baseball fans, though, McGwire ends his 16-year career -- a magnificent, record-setting, jaw-dropping home run of a career -- as big as ever.